Breastfeeding: Old Wives Tales and Double Standards

I talked about breastfeeding a little while ago and I thought that would be all I’d have to say on the subject. Apparently, though, there’s more that needs to be said!

A few weeks ago I was at my GPs for Squirm’s check up. All was going great until the doctor asked me if I was still breastfeeding. “Yep!” I said, pretty happy that things were going so well at more than four months (especially with teeth coming in). Instead I got a serious look from the doctor, a lecture on the Vitamin C deficiencies of breast milk (?!) and a recommendation that I should give Squirm juice, and told that I really should have started that from 3 months.

This advice, based on an old wives tale, is just another piece of false advice given to me and other breastfeeding mothers. We are bombarded with them constantly from ‘Breastfeeding will cause saggy boobs’ (Pregnancy causes saggy boobs) to ‘When your breasts are soft you don’t have any milk any more’ (Breasts naturally soften after a little while. Thank goodness.) Sadly, a lot of the old wives tales come from the medical profession. I’ve avoided child health nurses since I was told that I had to introduce Squirm to a bottle and that hand expressing would cause mastitis. Then there’s my doctor friend with his concern that I wasn’t giving my (obviously healthy) baby the right nutrients.

A lot of these tales, unsurprisingly, are reinforced by people interested in promoting companies and products rather than breastfeeding. Henri Nestle, whose company developed an early formula in the late 1800s, was an entrepreneur, not a doctor, so obviously it was in his best interests to get as many mothers using formula as possible – whether they needed to or not. To get people to switch to bottle feeding, they had to convince mothers that breast milk was not as good for their babies as formula was. It’s pretty easy to tell mothers that their milk is too thin (compare what breast milk and formula looks like) or that there can’t be enough vitamins – after all we can’t tell what is in breast milk – there’s no handy ingredients label!

To add to the misinformation, there’s the double standard.

Imagine you were (for whatever reason) using formula. The feeding was going great for you and your baby was putting on good weight, but you were having some sleep issues. You turn to an online forum for help when suddenly every fourth response or so told you that you must give up formula feeding immediately and relactate or find breastmilk donors. People would be (justifiably) outraged. How dare they blame formula feeding for an unrelated problem.

But yesterday, a question about sleep was posted on a popular Brisbane parenting Facebook page. A good number of the respondents told the mother bluntly that she should just stop breastfeeding and change to formula. That breast milk was bad for babies, too thin for babies, didn’t have the right nutrients for babies. One person even declared that breast milk can kill babies. Yet, when I contacted the moderator of the page, I was told that she didn’t take a position. Allowing one kind of response (stop breastfeeding) and not another (stop formula feeding) is taking a side.

(This is where I suddenly get comments about how people were made to feel guilty about bottle feeding. Which I agree sucks. But the general population agrees that it sucks. Ask breastfeeding women how many times they get ill informed, judgmental comments too – only they’re not allowed to talk about it, because it might make people feel guilty . . . )

The double standard continues – doctors and child health nurses who suggest things which are untrue and detrimental to breastfeeding or insist that the mother must stop feeding early for no reason are normal. A breastfeeding advocate who suggests untrue things about formula feeding ends up on the front page of the Courier Mail. Breastfeeding a toddler is seen as perverse or disgusting, but we’re bombarded with ads for toddler formula (which was only introduced after formula companies were prevented from advertising infant formula – so their names, brands, and products would still be seen on television and in print). Organisations like the Australian Breastfeeding Association have strict guidelines around what they can and cannot say – even if you’re just an attendee at a regular meeting, while formula companies like Karicare can set up ‘parenting support websites’ like this one.

The statistics are pretty clear – most women in Australia want to breastfeed. But only 15% (and that’s the generous statistic) of women in Australia are able to breastfeed exclusively for six months (the recommended Word Health Organisation guidelines). The question is, how do we get past the myths and double standards to provide real support for all those women who want to breastfeed?

They’ve actually been working on it in Timor Leste – where they now has a 50% rate of babies exclusively breastfed for 6 months. They’ve done a lot of different things to achieve this, including better educating medical professionals about breastfeeding and using women to support other women in breastfeeding. We can easily do that in Australia. It would take very little for Child Health Nurses and GPs to be better educated on breastfeeding (they could read the fact or fiction page on the ABA website and be a lot better off to start with).

Additionally, every woman can help other women who want to breastfeed. It can be as simple as smiling at a woman who is breast feeding in public rather than telling them to cover the baby’s head or to turn and face the wall (a friend was told she should do that because breastfeeding was ‘disgusting’ – she already had a cover over the bub!) Instead of repeating the old wives tales to someone who is having trouble, you can recommend the ABA helpline (which is open to everyone, whether they are members or not) or a lactation counselor. If you’re not certain about whether you’re repeating an old wives tale (lots of grandmothers still suggest giving babies a bottle of water in summer – because that’s what they were told to do) but you really want to help, then take a little time to learn a little more about breastfeeding through visiting sites like ABA or Kellymom – it’s pretty amazing what our bodies can do and it’s cool to learn about!

This isn’t breastfeeding versus formula feeding. This is making sure accurate information is shared. This is making sure that choices are respected. This is making sure that those women who want to breastfeed are supported. This is making sure that the mothers are making the informed decisions, not the formula companies or the media.

"So, you're telling me that in three months this milk is going to give me scurvy? Interesting . . ."

“So, you’re telling me that in three months this milk is going to give me scurvy? Interesting . . .”

More information on the background of formula companies and dodgy practices
And more dodgy formula company practices

46 comments

  1. LOVE IT! I can’t believe that fuckwit told you that!

    I find it absolutely incredible that anyone believes that a child couldn’t survive on breastmilk alone for a sustained period of time. How the fuck do they think the human race made it to 2013? I’m pretty fucking sure there was no formula or vitamin-c fortified orange juice back in BC times!

    As you can see from my swearing, this makes me really, really mad! I don’t give a flying flip if you breastfeed or formula feed, the decision is yours, but whatever you do, for yours and your baby’s sake, be informed! And don’t spread misinformation. And don’t judge people for what they do or don’t do. That is the crux of it I think, both sides of the debate (why there even is one is beyond me) tend to go to the extreme on some of their statements and nobody ever just gives clear, scientific evidence to mothers.

    I’m currently still breastfeeding Mia at almost 14 months, and while I do plan to stop over the next few months (for no reason other than one, which I won’t go in to yet, I feel a post a’coming!) I find I don’t tell people that often that I am still breastfeeding because most people find it weird or gross and I quite frankly can’t be bothered dealing with the judgement from strangers, friends or family.

    1. I was pretty angry, though not so much on my behalf (I’m an ABA member and very well read, so I knew he was speaking nonsense) but on the behalf of the next mother who goes in there, and the one after that. It’s all very well to make scurvy jokes (and I do), but no so funny when someone gives up feeding, or has trouble, after being given this advice.

      I really like ABA as an organisation because 99.9% of the time, the information is scientifically accurate (because it’s volunteer run, there’s always going to be occasions where someone goes off script, but they work hard to correct that). They run on the smell of an oily rag and still are overwhelmingly generous in their help and support. They also offer support to women who have had to wean earlier than they wanted, and help them come to terms with that. (https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bfinfo/when-breastfeeding-doesnt-work-out)

      And go you for breastfeeding so long! I LOVE hearing about mums who have got past 12 months – gives me big happies :)

    2. Kylez, I know that feeling all too well. Fancy mentioning breastfeeding your current 26 month old and watch peoples eyes tick over when they work out you also have a fully breastfed 6 month old as well… lol. Needless to say, I rarely bring that up. Congrats on breastfeeding for this amount of time, you’re doing a great job! Originally when my first daughter was born, 12 months was my aim, then it pushed to two years when I read more and more about the benefits, now I’m going to the ‘she can wean herself’ angle but tbh, she’s a boob monster and we’ve had many tears from trying to get her off the boob during the night wake ups (horrible sleeper, hence my reluctance to wean!), so I’m not sure if she’ll wean anytime soon… Anywho, each to their own. There NEEDS to be more support for mothers, no judgement just support, and if a mother ASKS for advice, backed up and informed advice would be lovely, nothing more or less. Good luck on your journey.

  2. Change doctors, this one is a fool.

    I guess we really need more people who think for themselves and only take advice with your own research

    I say, get those boobs out (to breast feed) wherever and whenever you want.

    Our four kids were breast fed for their first year or so, but my wife is a pretty determined woman. There were some tough times, not enough milk, too much milk etc. but all that stuff is character building so they say.

    Now go and eat some carrots so you can see at night, don’t sit so close to the TV or you will get square eyes and will you please stop doing that other thing, it will make you go blind.

    1. We’re looking for a new doctor. I’m also looking into ways of getting the whole surgery better informed and more breast feeding friendly.

      Breast feeding can be really difficult at times, which is another reason the support is necessary (support rather than ‘just stop breastfeeding’). I had too much milk too, which is definitely a problem you can’t talk about in public because people think it’s not a problem at all!

      It’s funny how some old wives tales have completely disappeared, while others persist. I suppose the don’t-sit-that-close-to-the-television lobby don’t have the same finances as the formula companies

      1. Hi, I linked this entry via Pinky on FB. If you are in Brissie, we see the doctors at Stafford Heights Medical Centre. Not sure if you are northside or what not. They are brilliant. (They have a ‘Breastfeeding Welcome” sign on the front door and a few of the doctors are ABA members and LCs too etc.) Good luck.

  3. Good lord! Lacking in vitamin C! What next? Did the Dr know that juice lacks in antibodies? I really like the way you have written about this topic in terms of having the right information, not what is right or wrong. At 10 months I’m still breastfeeding and have been lucky to not encounter any nasty comments. Though a friend did tell me wearing two tops would help make feeding more modest on a hot day when I fed bub with a singlet on. Modest maybe but stinky hot too!
    Oh. and I read the water nonsense today! Because it’s currently hot give babies warm water to calm them! I know I love a warm drink on a hot day! Dr google is a scary dr!

    1. Not to mention what dentists would think about this particular advice . . .

      Both my mother and mother in law asked about water, based on what was common practice in their time. Researchers didn’t know back then that breast milk adapts to all kinds of conditions, so nothing else is required – it’s amazing what we know now, and we still don’t know everything!

    1. Yep. I’m still trying to think through what I can do to make the doctor’s surgery more aware of this kind of misinformation. I need to get ABA materials in there, stat! (To go with the numerous baby food company posters)

      1. I’d be inclined to make an official complaint. That’s just ridiculous.

        (oh, and well done on breastfeeding, I fed all three of my children for 12-18 months, and loved it. Despite being told they were too old and to get them on a bottle)

  4. Great photo.
    It’s completely heartbreaking that a doctor could be so misinformed.
    My husband is studying medicine at present and says that when people in his cohort learn I breastfed both our kids past 3 months (let alone that I fed them past 2 years!) he gets sideways looks and uneasiness. They learn about women’s and kids health next year so I’m hoping desperately that they’ll become better informed. But it is a worry… Misinformation promoted by a qualified GP sounds almost criminal!

    1. It’s strange that people going into a medical career could be so squeamish about such a basic human activity. I’m looking at doing a little low level advocacy (getting more ‘Breastfeeding Welcome Here’ places in my local community – also allowing places that have been gorgeous to me to be celebrated) to make breastfeeding more visible and accepted in the community :)

    2. i have worked for two doctors and they both told me, that during training they had a small portal of child nutrition classes which briefly mentioned breastfeeding, but not enough to really know about it, so ddon’tt don’t don

  5. Oh my goodness, I would be changing doctors. It’s really disappointing that people are being misinformed. You’re right, people’s choices should be respected, whatever they happen to be.

    I must be a lucky one then, because I’ve never experienced anything other than “breast is best” sentiment – actually to the point where I felt unsupported and that I had no options when my first newborn wasn’t taking to the breast and I couldn’t express milk at all. If not for one helpful nurse, I’d have had a fight on my hands to get a bit of formula into her. We got through that and I ended up breastfeeding her to 9 or 10 months, often feeling uncomfortable doing so, but never because of anything anyone had said. It astounds me that medical “professionals” perpetuate such nonsense.

    This post was shared on my Francesca’s Festa of Favourites January 2013 link up :-)

    1. I think one of the myths that I’d like to see ‘busted’ is that breastfeeding should be immediately successful. It’s bloody hard work for both the mum and the baby! Squirm couldn’t figure out where to stick his tongue and he’d put it in the wrong place then get really, really frustrated that he couldn’t feed! Took him two weeks to be a ‘natural’ feeder.

  6. I wasn’t able to breastfeed yet tried 3 times. I agree that more support needs to be given to new mothers to give them the skills and the confidence to exclusively feed for the first 6 months. It’s sad your doctor gave you that advice and that he clearly believes it and would give it to other mothers too. Good on your for sticking to your beliefs – you are lucky to be able to feed your baby yourself and you should be proud of that!

    1. Imagine if every woman could get at least one appointment with a lactation counselor while they were in hospital . . . and then a follow up one guaranteed (like the physio one I got). Imagine if we were surrounded with a whole community of well informed women – we’d be unstoppable!

      Maybe we need to take breastfeeding back from the health professionals and the companies :)

  7. Come to Holland! Here you have to defend yourself if you are formula feeding! We have the so called breastfeeding maffia who support breastfeeding , breastfeeding and.. Breastfeeding….

    1. What are the breastfeeding rates like in Holland? What’s the doctor education like when it comes to breastfeeding?

      I think the biggest problem here, is that breastfeeding is still seen as something that should ‘just happen’. It might have ‘just happened’ in the past – but women were surrounded by other women breastfeeding. I once said that we need to get rid of the old saying ‘almost every woman can breastfeed’ and replace it with ‘almost every woman can learn to breastfeed – with the right information and support’ – it’s the information and support that’s lacking here (including easily accessible support if breastfeeding doesn’t work out)

  8. I think the best advise is to listen to NO ONE!! I breast fed my first for 3 months and it was pure torture! I hated every minute and was just plain miserable. SO much so that when my second came along I didn’t breast feed at all. Then when number three came I decided to give it another try and here I am 8 months later, still going and loving it. Go figure?? Everyone is different and whatever suits mum and bub is the best I think xxx

    1. Unfortunately in our current society, we don’t have enough breast feeding role models to allow us to listen to no one. Knowledge is power when it comes to breast feeding, and a properly trained counselor can make a big difference to successful feeding, as can reading accurate information.

      In my ideal world, everyone who works with new mothers would have a good understanding of the basic facts of breastfeeding, and know when to refer women to the specialists.

  9. My goodness! Doctors like that are the precise reason that breastfeeding stats are so low.
    Did you know that they aren’t allowed to show ads for baby formula on tv? That’s why they flog the ads for the toddler formula instead… somehow that’s allowed.
    I strongly agree with everything you’ve said here!
    I formula fed my first 12 yrs ago now. I was 21 and uneducated when it came to breastfeeding and also grew up where no one around me ever breastfed.
    I’m currently still breastfeeding my now 21 month old and have battled all the wives tales and awkward glances (or those whose eyes dart around the room, trying not to look at you while feeding as they don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable! lol) and all of that stuff. Reading lots of articles, joining the ABA on fb etc really helped me get through those tricky times.
    I hope that our children don’t have to deal with the same kind of issues as we do when it comes to their babies. Education really is the key!
    Great post lovely x

    1. It’s amazing how important it is to us to have contact with breast feeding women! I was a bit shocked when I realised that the area I live in has only one ABA Breastfeeding Welcome Here place (a doctor’s surgery). I’ve fed in tonnes of cafes and libraries who would easily meet the requirements – they should get that little bit of free advertising which comes with the stickers and the listing on the website! Just seeing that sticker might make someone feel better about breastfeeding in public, which would then normalise breastfeeding for more people!

      1. Hi! I came to your blog via a link on facebook. Love this post! Keep up the great work. I’m a mum of a three year old, and managed to exclusively breastfeed to 6 months thanks to the information of the ABA (both local group and forum) despite pressure from other health professionals *rolling eyes*. Did you that if you find somewhere that is breastfeeding friendly according to the criteria on this page https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/services/welcome that you can ask them if they would like a Breastfeeding Welcome here package? As a new mum I know that I appreciated these stickers, it meant I felt a little more confident to breastfeed in public.
        Also if you go to the forum http://www.lrc.asn.au/forum and ask for recommendations for a Dr, forum members can send you a private message with information for you. Your local group may also be able to point you in the direction of a breastfeeding friendly GP.
        Good luck! And keep up the great writing!!

  10. I’m not a parent but I find your doctor’s reaction so disgusting. And what is with people who care if someone is breastfeeing in public!? I’ll never understand that. It’s a baby, let it eat! Simple!

    1. It’s great to hear non-parents reinforcing that! I think people have funny hang-ups about breasts. I also get comments from women which basically tell me that I’m making them feel guilty by feeding in front of them . . .

  11. Great post. It takes a lot of work to find the right doctors and health care professionals who are supportive of full term Breastfeeding. Even though I was bottled-fed baby with no immediate Breastfeeding role models in my day to day life growing up, I knew as a mum I was committed to doing with it ever fibre of my being. Because of linking up with the right people, support and health care professionals I breastfeed my son for six month then after weaning him at six months, three months later I relactated and continued to feed him from 9months to just before his third birthday. Had a listened to the advice of ill informed people and some health care professionals I would have been dissuaded from continuing to feed through two subsequent pregnancies despite they ended in miscarriage. But thankfully I had the right doctor and I continued on to feed through my next pregnancy with my daughter and had the full support to tandem feed after her birth. I guess what I’m saying is that, yes some health care professionals really need to become better informed about Breastfeeding and promoting services likes the ABA, to support a mother and babies journey better.

  12. LOVED this post! You make so many valid points. And yes, it isn’t so much about “breastfeeding vs. formula” but just getting the accurate information out there.
    I loved the support that the ABA gave me. Yes, there was a time I wanted to throw the phone at the wall when I called them with thrush and they told me to keep breasfeeding but it ended up being the best thing for me and the twinlets.

    1. It’s so hard when the best way to feel better is sometimes to feel worse!

      I think the more correct information we get out, the more that women can make their choices in an informed manner.

  13. I have BF all 3 of mine, and thankfully ignored all the crap advice I got from everyone to stop at certain stages, including one Dr who told me to STOP bfing when I developed mastitis (again) with No.3 when he was just 8 days old, anyone with half a brain knows the milk needs to drain otherwise infection gets worse! Lucky as a 3rd time mum I just nodded politely, afterall I just wanted my script and for him to bugger off (it was Medcall who come to your house after hours and bulk bill).
    Breast is best if you can I reckon.

    1. I told my husband what the doctor told you and he (my husband) just shook his head – even he knew that was bad advice! (It’s a strange day when my husband can give better breast feeding guidance than a medical professional)

  14. Love your post! scurvy! lol! Here is why I love ABA: http://bellabirthwithcatherine.tumblr.com/post/18370813787

    I am surprised at the number of furphies still being toted by health professionals (I often feel that if I know somethng, it must be general knowledge!). For many women though, it is the well meaning advise of family and friends that can underine breastfeeding. Much of the not exclusive BF until 6 mths is due to introducing solids, or adding farex to the babies diet (to help them sleep better!) around 4 mths.

    1. I’m seeing a lot of people introducing farex before 4 months too.

      We’ve just been through the 4 month sleep regression with Squirm while he went through teething and massive developments with movement and speech. It was hard some nights (when he woke a half hour after we’d gone to sleep . . .) but knowing that it was part of normal growth meant that a) I knew he was getting enough food and b) that he probably wouldn’t eat better even with solids!

      It’s this knowledge of natural baby behaviour which seems to be missing. It seems funny that some people pick it up (I don’t even know where I learned about 4 month sleep regression) and some don’t

  15. Great post. I can’t believe that women are told such ridiculous bumpkin by doctors. The thing to remember is that everyone has their own agenda.
    I quickly learnt to tell the Maternal Child Health Nurse what they wanted to hear and not listen to their helpful advice. When my first child was 3 months old I telephoned on a weekend by the MCHN who told me she was worried that my son was not putting on enough weight and I should be waking him in the middle of the night to feed him. I worked very hard to breastfeed all my 3 kids beyond 6 months. It was not easy in the beginning but I preserved rather than take the “easier” option of bottle feeding. I would do it where ever I pleased. I never covered the head of my child or myself. I’m far from being an exhibitionist but never saw the point. The child’s head covers any “offensive” body parts quite well and if people wanted to stare or make comments I’d stare back at them. I’d much rather see a child on the breast doing what humans have done for their young for thousands of generations. In fact all mammals breast feed their young, why can’t we?
    I have trouble believing the number of friends who are told their child is lactose intolerant and needs to be taken off the breast and formula feed instead. There is something very wrong going on in our society.

    1. Especially since formula has lactose in it! (It’s based on cows milk)

      I know some mums have made very slight adjustments to their diets (zymil or A2 milk for example) and had big improvements in things like colic. Doctors have no trouble suggesting dietary changes for other conditions (I had to go on the world’s blandest diet for 2 weeks during my pregnancy after a reflux/gas attack), but don’t suggest that a slight change in the mother’s diet might assist with problems the baby is having.

      I usually baby wear, so I’m quite covered when I feed. Helpful with a very distracted Squirm at the moment :)

  16. Thank you for this post. I just read it while feeding my 29 month old little boy. :) I have breastfeeding almost non-stop for the past 6 years. I would NEVER have been able to do that without the wonderful support of my husband and his family, who advised me and gave me a subscription to the ABA. It was hard work starting feeding with my eldest daughter – it took two months and three bouts of mastitis before we discovered that she wasn’t latching on properly. It is lack of information and lack of support that undermine Mum no matter what choice they are making. When my son was 11 months old her hadn’t been putting on much weight because he had been very active. The Child Health Nurse I was going to told me to introduce the bottle, drink more water myself and come back in a week to make sure I was doing the right thing. My son started walking the very next week, and I never went back to that Health Nurse. Our job as Mums is hard enough without all of the conflicting advice out there for us, and the constant one-up-manship that exists. Yes, I breastfeed a toddler, but that’s my choice. I have no place to judge anyone else on their choices. They must make the best choice for themselves and their children. I’m glad you knew better, and I hope that you can make the difference that you wish to make. :)

  17. Thank you for sharing this! I work as a midwife and am often alarmed at the advice my colleagues give new mums and their families. I particularly wanted to congratulate you on putting a credible source in your blog (ABA). The ABA are a fantastic resource/support, which all mums in Australia should be in contact with.

  18. Wonderful blog! I joined NMAA 33 years ago when my first daughter was born and with their wonderful support breast fed my 3 babies past their second birthdays. Now my daughter is to become a mum, I gave her an ABA subscription, and she has invited me to “live in” with her and her partner with their new baby so I can support her to fulfill her choice to breastfeed. What a priviledge! Babies grow and thrive in environments where not only they, but their parents are given support, and confidence to grow in their capacity as nuturers in the best possible manner.

  19. I was told many wives tales regarding breast and bottle feeding. Biggest one was my son won’t gain as much weight whilst breastfeeding. However he is now 14 months old, never once had formula and weighs a VERY healthy 13.5kgs. At his one year check up both the nurse and doctor were amazed at just how big he is (and the fact he’s still nursing)! Good on you breastfeeding mummas! Ps I feed in public when he wants and have never once covered myself. My opinion is you don’t like it you don’t look!

  20. Thankyou for writing this. Information is power whatever you decide. Money is made off the most crazy things at times. I formula fed both my babies but I just found breastfeeding really hard. I could have done with some more support at the time. There is so much misinformation about all these issues and more hanging around out there in the first world and also all over the web. There needs to be more sensible writers writing sensible stuff. Thankyou for being brave enough to write on this issue!!

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